CLARKSBURG, WV (InvestigateTV) – After years of breaking the law, this year the FBI began publishing data related to its own hate crime cases.
It was a quiet and unexpected move following months of questions about why the agency wasn’t reporting its cases.
For more than two decades, local law enforcement agencies voluntarily provided information about their hate crime cases to the FBI for annual publication. The FBI, however, was legally required to report its numbers.
But earlier this year, InvestigateTV found the agency had failed to do so for years.
Public officials, crime experts and the FBI itself say accurate data is critical for preventing hate crimes.
“Those charged with the enforcement of the law will be better able to quantify their resource needs and direct available resources to the areas where they will have the most effectiveness,” the FBI’s 2015 hate crime training manual states.
In March, a spokeswoman from the FBI’s data hub 30 miles south of West Virginia University said it would not participate this year. It would continue to break the law.
She said that the FBI would come into compliance by 2021, but it would not publish 2018 numbers.
So when the 2018 report hit the internet in November, it was a surprise to find a category labeled “federal” among the state names.
The FBI reported 82 hate crimes nationwide.
The accelerated move toward reporting marks a significant step for the federal law enforcement agency. Cases that may have been left out in previous years are now counted.
But InvestigateTV found the data on federally investigated crimes is still incomplete. Sixteen - or more than a quarter - of the FBI field offices did not participate, meaning they sent in no information. Many of those that did send in data declined to identify specific cases they documented.
That lack of detailed information means InvestigateTV and the public cannot determine which cases were included, though it is clear some were left out.
The graffiti was red, black and menacing: “Synagogue of Satan.” Swastikas. “14” and “88” – numbers that are symbols of white supremacy.
The Northshore Jewish Congregation in Louisiana found those images and words scrawled across its synagogue just days before the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashanah in September 2018.
“I do remember having a sinking feeling in my stomach about who would do something like this. It was very disturbing,” said Bonnie Bernstein, a founding member of the congregation. “I was a little scared. We all were a little scared.”
Bernstein is a first-generation American. Her parents are refugees from Nazi Germany.
“So I’ve grown up with a lot of the stories, and all of those feelings coursed through me at the time that I drove up and looked at [the graffiti],” Bernstein said.
Congregation leaders contacted the local police in their small city that sits just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Mandeville police told the media it would investigate the vandalism as a potential hate crime.
But in November when the FBI released its annual report of hate crimes in America for 2018, the database showed Mandeville police submitted zero hate crimes for the year.
“This was a hate crime. I don’t see how anybody can think otherwise,” Bernstein said. “I think what was on here was too specific. Even if it were teenagers, they would have to have a pretty good understanding of white supremacy.”
Congregation representatives said they also spoke to the FBI at the time of the crime. But the New Orleans field office for the FBI, which covers the entire state, reported no hate crimes motivated by religious bias.
Bernstein was shocked when InvestigateTV told her the vandalism was never reported by either agency.
“I knew that those statistics had come out recently,” Bernstein said. “I remember thinking even to myself, ‘Oh, OK, when they say there were this many hate crimes, that our vandalism was part of that.’”
“I don’t know what to say about that,” she said.
When InvestigateTV asked about the omission, the local police chief said it was an oversight. The crime should have been counted.
“This incident was absolutely taken very seriously and considered a hate crime,” Mandeville Police Chief Gerald Sticker said. “Our crime reports are automatically generated by our report writing system. I will look into and correct the problem.”
The specific issue, he later explained, is that the crime was entered into the computer system when the call first came in – as a damage complaint. It was never updated because there was no arrest.
The New Orleans FBI Field Office would not comment on why it did not report the case.
This year’s release of 2018 hate crime numbers showed 7,120 hate crimes reported that year – a decrease of 55 incidents from the year before.
But because there are so many documented issues with reporting, those numbers could be misleading.
In February, InvestigateTV reported racially motivated murders, anti-gay beatings and other serious crimes are missing from data collections.
Local police agencies said they did not submit them for a variety of reasons from simply forgetting to thinking another agency involved in the case, such as the FBI, would handle the data reporting. Others said they sent in more cases than actually showed up in the federally released data.
For those local agencies, participating in the federal data reporting is voluntary but encouraged.
Ironically, that encouragement comes from the FBI, one of few agencies statutorily obligated to report its cases under the Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act of 1988 and Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990.
For years, it didn’t report its cases. And those cases were serious.
In March, InvestigateTV reported that some of the FBI’s cases that were not counted included murders, church arsons and a mosque bombing.
At the same time, the agency called on more local departments to participate. The Department of Justice even spent money commissioning a study to, in part, understand why some local agencies didn’t send in numbers.
That move sounded hypocritical to Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI special agent who now works for the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization devoted to hate-related issues.
Months later now, she called FBI’s move to report its cases both significant and remarkable.
“I think we have to commend them for beginning to engage with their own processes and procedures,” Deitle said.
For the recently-released 2018 data collection, 40 of the FBI’s 56 field offices participated. Each office reported an average of around two crimes.
For Deitle, that’s a start and something the FBI can lean on to encourage local departments to report. In the most recent year, 110 fewer local agencies participated in the data program than the year before.
“I hope that [the FBI] can use the fact that they did report in 2018 to all those other departments that do not report their data to the [Uniform Crime Reporting program]. At least they can say they did,” Deitle said.
Deitle said she believes the FBI began reporting due to a concern about breaking the law and journalists exposing the double standard.
The FBI didn’t explain how it was able to move its timeline up significantly. A spokeswoman previously said the bureau needed to make system upgrades to begin reporting.
In an emailed statement in November, the FBI said: “Considering the amount of hate crime incidents investigated, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) understood the importance of reporting this information and worked to implement FBI reporting ahead of the scheduled date.”
Data in the online collection for each jurisdiction only includes the bias motivation, such as race or religion, and the quarter of the year the incident occurred.
The vague data makes it difficult to track what the FBI, or any agency, is sending in – and what they are leaving out.
When InvestigateTV contacted regional FBI offices to find out which crimes they reported, most of the spokespeople were unaware their offices had begun reporting. Some confirmed their data submissions.
The Louisville FBI office confirmed it turned in a high-profile, racially motivated shooting of two black people at a Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, on Oct. 24, 2018.
The Pittsburgh FBI office said it sent in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that left 11 people dead on Oct. 27, 2018.
Both of those incidents garnered national media attention.
The Detroit FBI field office, which submitted one hate crime, said it believed its reported case involved a man threatening journalists with violent and anti-Semitic rhetoric that year.
After two days of corresponding with regional offices, the FBI’s national press office directed them not to comment to InvestigateTV about hate crime cases.
The Portland office explained: “We will be unable to identify which statistics match up with which cases. [Headquarters] has determined that by doing so – confirming some and not others – that individual offices could inadvertently confirm open, active investigations (which would violate DOJ policy).”
The clampdown on information made it difficult to know if the FBI reported cases it helped investigate.
For example, in Washington state, the mayor of a Seattle suburb was attacked at a community event. The assault, police said, was because of Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta’s pro-immigration stance. Matta is Latino, and the assailant told Matta he "wasn’t going to let your people take over,” the local police chief said.
Police called it a hate crime. State prosecutors charged it that way. But neither Burien police nor the King County Sheriff’s Office, which holds the police contract, reported it in hate crime numbers. A county sergeant recalled that the FBI and the state attorney general were involved in the case but was unsure if it was counted federally.
Because the FBI will not identify cases, it is unclear if the Seattle office may have reported it – or if it was another crime left out of the numbers.
Through the process of elimination, InvestigateTV has found cases certainly left out of 2018 numbers, both by local departments and the FBI.
For example, the Rogers, Ark., attack of a tattoo shop owner does not appear in data, despite reports that it was motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation.
Rogers police reported no crimes motivated by sexual orientation in 2018.
The chief of police in Rogers, Hayes Minor, said the attack should have been counted in their data. He said the case file has the crime marked in a way that should have triggered the data’s submission to the FBI. He planned to further explore the error.
When the crime occurred, local police also told media they would involve the FBI; however, the Little Rock FBI field office is one of 16 that did not submit any report data.
InvestigateTV filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the national FBI offices for more details about the FBI’s reported cases – including the other standard information departments include in their reports to the FBI such as the type of crime committed.
The bureau closed the request without providing any information. InvestigateTV is appealing the decision.
The FBI’s data center has declined or ignored requests for on-camera interviews for more than a year.
The mural is colorful and splashed with blues and greens. A giant sunflower. In the center, a hamsa – a symbol of protection in Judaism and Islam.
“It’s very bright and cheerful. So when you drive by, instead of feeling scars of pain and hurt, it’s very uplifting,” Bernstein said of Northshore Jewish Congregation’s artistic solution to erasing the hateful graffiti once drawn on the Louisiana synagogue.
While local artist Laurie Alan Browne helped the synagogue hide the vandalism with a mural, Bernstein hopes the hate crime isn’t hidden.
“No matter where you are, there’s always a dark side of humanity. And we need to be aware and alert, and we need to speak out against it when it happens,” Bernstein said.
While she was surprised to learn the police failed to report the case, Bernstein said law enforcement has been extremely helpful since the vandalism.
Mandeville officers provide security and advice. A detective who specializes in white supremacy helped investigate. The FBI followed leads – though so far, no one has been caught.
The FBI told InvestigateTV all field offices will participate in reporting in the future.
“My hope is that those numbers will increase in credibility and in accuracy and that they will make sure to coordinate with their own state and local partners to avoid any duplication of reporting,” Deitle said.
The potential duplication of crimes in the database has been a longstanding concern when multiple agencies are involved. Unfortunately, with a lack of transparency about the cases submitted, it may be difficult to tell if this is happening and how often.
InvestigateTV confirmed the Kroger shooting in Kentucky was only counted once. The local department said it did not submit the crime – though that was partially because the state’s weak hate crime law did not cover the shooting. Instead, federal prosecutors pursued those charges.
“I found the original file, and there’s nothing there to label as a hate crime with Kentucky and the law it has,” Jeffersontown Police Col. Steve Schmidt said. “It was covered and reported, just not by us because of the way our law is set up.”
Kentucky’s hate crime law only covers certain offenses, from standard crimes of assault, rape and arson to more obscure crimes like criminal use of a noxious substance – with a stink bomb being an example in the corresponding statute’s text.
It does not cover murder.
Further, the law doesn’t tack on additional time to a person’s sentence. It only allows the judge or parole board to consider the nature of the crime when denying punishment like probation or deciding to delay or deny parole.
The Pittsburgh police ignored repeated requests for confirmation it reported the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.
Deitle also hopes the FBI might go back and add data from previous years, which she believes based on her experience with the bureau would be possible.
“Every time somebody called in a complaint, whether it was in 1998 or 1995 or 2002, it’s there. It’s in the FBI systems,” Deitle said. “Maybe they can go back in time and try to pull some of that data out and then correct the records that have been established in the past.”